CIOs: Join a board to gain experience, but tread lightly

In many ways, CIOs are well-suited to board service.  After all, CIOs have to understand many different aspects of the business, so they often have insight and knowledge that spans the business and they understand how many of the various pieces fit together.

Further, there are a lot of organizations out there that need talented, knowledgeable people to serve on their boards.  When you put the two together, it seems like there would be a natural fit.  In fact, some would see board service for an outside organization as a way to gain further insight into organizational dynamics and decision-making.  This, in turn, can be leveraged in the CIO’s own position to improve his or her effectiveness.

In 2011, I was asked by my credit union–a seventeen county system in Missouri–to consider joining the board of directors.  At the time, I was also the CIO of a small college in Missouri and had major experience working with boards of directors from the executive staff side of he equation.  I accepted the invitation to join the board of what is a non-profit organization and I’m very glad I did.

In addition to learning about the ins and outs of a business in a different vertical than my own, I’ve also had the opportunity to observe some interesting challenges that people face when they move from the staff side of the organizational line to the board side.

The staff perspective

As a CIO on the executive team, I spent a number of years working with various members of the board of directors in various capacities.  In some cases, I was assigned staff work that needed to be completed for board meetings.  In other cases, I acted as the liaison between staff groups and associated board committees.

However, with the exception of performing tasks associated with helping the board do their work, I did not take direction from members of the board.  The only staff person that takes direct ongoing direction from the board is the CEO of the organization.  Obviously, there may be different scenarios in different organizations, but this was what I experienced.

The role of the Board of Directors

For most organizations, the most important role played by the board is the hiring and firing of the CEO.  The CEO is selected by the board to operate the organization.  In my observations, perhaps the biggest challenge that new board member face is understanding the true role they play.

At my credit union, board members are selected from the membership and, while each member may have a “home branch” of the credit union, that fact means nothing when it comes to board service.  While we’re performing board activities, our individual affiliations with our branches are meaningless and we make decisions regarding the big picture.

Mistakes abound

At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.  For some, it’s very difficult to assume an oversight role and there are many examples of board members that overstep their boundaries.  This is to be expected from people who are used to a direct management role.

Some tips

If you’re invited to join a local board of directors, it’s a great opportunity to expand your skills while, at the same time, helping a local organization.  Here are some tips to help you understand your role and avoid making serious mistakes:

  • Your role is oversight.  In most cases, your role is one of oversight, not direct management.  In most organizations, responsibility for direct management is delegated to the CEO only.
  • Be wary of direct staff interaction.  I’ve seen board members that take it upon themselves to direct staff members to perform certain actions that the board member feels are necessary.  This is unfair to both the staff person and the CEO.  If you, in your role as a board member, want something to happen, take it up with the CEO.  The CEO may disagree with your suggestion, though.  Bear in mind that the running of the organization is the job of the CEO. If enough board members become concerned with a CEO’s performance, it’s the job of the board to hire and fire the CEO.
  • Offer time and talent when appropriate.  For many organizations, board members are brought on due to specific skill sets.  This is not to say that the board member will be performing his or her day job in his board role.  In my case, I’ve spent significant time helping the credit union think through a number of vexing technology challenges.  However, I’m very careful to remain deferential to staff as I don’t want them to ever think that I’m trying to run their technology show. Bear in mind that the credit union only recently hired their first full-time IT staffer; I participated in interviews and have been working with this talented new hire to consider different options that the credit union has with regard to their WAN.
  • Learn the business.  As much as you can, learn how the business operates.  As a minimum, you must learn about the business’ key performance indicators so that you begin to understand the organization’s performance in the market.
  • Separate your personal situation from the organization’s.  When it comes time to evaluate the CEO and consider salary increases, your personal situation shouldn’t be a factor.  Perhaps you didn’t receive a raise in your day job.  This doesn’t mean that the CEO of the organization that you’re on the board for shouldn’t receive one.  Make absolutely certain that you understand how much CEOs in the industry make and make sure you’re compensating that person fairly.  If you don’t, you might be looking for a new CEO sooner rather than later.  I have, unfortunately, see this rule broken.

Summary

When taken for the right reasons, board membership for a local non-profit can help CIO’s gain more skills and see how organizations operate from a different perspective.  Just make sure to remember that board membership is very different than employment and you will do well.